“What Should we do with the body?”
My husband asked this on the side of our house next to the pink tea tree bushes where the west side of the wall is all in shade at the end of the day, even though we hadn’t yet found any sort of body to speak of.
We save anything to do with death, anything ugly, anything unsavory for after our 4-year-old is asleep. Anything R-rated, like the latest episodes of “Mare of Easttown,” which also coincidentally happens to deal with homicide. This probably wasn’t a homicide. Maybe manslaughter, at worst, or negligence.
The first sign of something wrong came when my mother dropped my 4-year-old son off after he spent a Saturday morning at her house. I answered the door to let her in and she looked down at the pavement on our porch.
“Did someone get cut out here?” she asked.
I walked out onto the welcome mat without shoes on and saw a few drips of red.
“It looks like blood,” my mother said. I stepped back in and slipped my flip flops on to get a closer look. A half moon of spattered blood stained the cement next to the hydrangea pot and then dozens of drips pooled a few feet away leading in a trail toward the lantana bush outside our front window. The drops disappeared into the tan bark, the brown colors too close to the dried red smears to distinguish.
My son also inspected, bending his lanky frame in half so his face was inches from the cement. He touched a spot and sniffed his hand.
“Don’t do that, baby. That’s gross,” I told him and pulled his still chubby hand into mine, dragging him into the house with my mother while I called my husband away from his YouTube viewing of garden videos to inspect.
“I don’t know what it is,” I said. “It wasn’t here this morning.”
“Maybe it was a lizard,” my husband said, the smallest creature around he could think of to minimize the situation.
“That much blood for a lizard?” I said. “Maybe a squirrel?”
The park across from us was 57-acres of open space with grasslands, wooded areas and a creek full of wildlife. We saw dozens of bird species, lizards sunning on piles of mulch, jack rabbits bounding across overgrown wildflowers, and hundreds of ground squirrels who created a patchwork of burrows we avoided on our walks.
A few weeks before, a herd of baby squirrels took shelter in the drainpipe near our curb. They darted out like pinballs in a machine, unexpected and without rhythm, one after the other. My husband and I had joked that it was a matter of time before we hit one.
“Still seems like a lot of blood for a baby squirrel,” I added.
“Maybe not if it lost a leg,” my husband said and peaked under the car he had driven to the store earlier that morning. But there was no sign of blood near the car. It started on our porch.
We were trying to whisper but my son hears and sees everything. He’s avoided the hearing loss I was born with and his father’s bad eyesight. He has perfect senses.
“I’ll help you find it, Daddy,” he said. “We can glue the leg back on.”
“Let’s deal with this later,” I told my husband, not wanting to get my son started on death things again.
My son had been obsessed with death a few months earlier, when his grandparents’ dog collapsed on a morning walk to the park. At the start of the pandemic, my mother had gotten in the habit of bringing the dog over three times a week to walk with us at the park. Cassidy was a 30-pound mutt, part Shiba Inu, part Staffordshire Terrier and part Keeshond. My sister and mother adopted her months after my parents bought their first house, not knowing the shy dog from the shelter hated over dogs and spooked at almost everything around.
By the time my son came along, the dog, Cassidy, had mellowed in her old age. She had grown accustomed to his grabby hands and her failing hearing kept her calm around his shrieks. On the days my mother came over, my son held the leash for a block or so and would call her his “best dog.” When we planned his 4th birthday, he named the dog as the first on the guest list.
We knew the dog was getting older. She had a growth in her abdomen, non-cancerous, but something the vet had been watching for a couple years, but she still loved her walks and dinnertime, begging for table scraps which were abundant around the kid.
On a spring morning, my parents and sister came over to walk as had become the routine. We didn’t make it to the park on the last day for the dog to sniff at the wildflowers one more time and stick her nose into one of the burrows. The dog stopped walking and fell on her side outside the black gate of our development near the Mexican sage plants.
“Take him home, please,” I told my sister, not wanting son to see the dog die. She rushed my kid back through the gate. He was confused at the sudden change in routine.
“What’s wrong with Cassidy?” he asked as they ran home. Nobody answered him.
My mom lifted the dog into her arms, her back arched out to handle the weight. The dog breathed heavily and whimpered, but didn't struggle. I took the dog from my mom halfway back to my house, her hot canine breath on my arm. The dog was 16 years old, part of the family longer than my son, longer than my husband.
My parents took the dog to the vet, but received no diagnosis or treatment. The dog turned perky and wagged her tail, perhaps a ploy to get back home and die in peace. And she did, later that the evening after all the local vets closed for the day, in the living room of my parents’ house. I received a tearful call as my parents loaded Cassidy into the car for one final trip to the emergency vet 45 miles north, her body no longer breathing.
My son deep asleep in his bed, I cried quietly while his lullabies played over the baby monitor. My husband turned off the TV and moved from the couch to sit next to me on the loveseat. He didn’t say anything, but put his heavy arm around my shoulders. He knows how I grieve. He has comforted me through the suicide of an ex, the miscarriages of our siblings, my own despair when I returned from a doctor’s appointment and told him the doctor said my chances of conceiving again were slim. He didn’t hand me a tissue or offer words of comfort. He let me cry deep sobs that caught in my chest, my face ugly and red, until I got the primordial howl out.
Then, congested and tired, I recounted the memories and the shape of what I lost.
I waited three days to talk to my son about the dog.
“Cassidy died so when we go to grandma and grandpa’s now you won’t see her anymore,” I told him as he held on to a stuffed cat. “She won’t come to our house anymore.”
“Where did she go?” my son asked. I couldn’t tell if he wasn’t listening or just didn’t understand.
“She’s gone,” I said. “Her body stopped working and she died.”
He walked away from me and went back to playing. When we visited my parents next, he didn’t ask about the dog.
“Maybe he’s just too young to get it,” I told my mom. “Guess I worried about talking to him for nothing.”
And then death started creeping into his play.
“Pete the Cat’s momma and daddy died so I have to take care of him now,” he told me one morning as we cuddled in bed and he clutched a ragged blue stuffed cat.
Then another day he said, “I found some baby dinosaurs at the park, but their mommy and daddy died so I tried to bring them home.”
“That was nice of you,” I told him and kissed his soft brown hair.
Then one morning as we cuddled in bed it came out. “I don’t want you to die, Momma.” And there it was, his fear of mortality ignited.
“I hope I’ll be around with you a long time,” I told him and squeezed him a little bit closer.
For the next week, I snuck back into his room hours after he was asleep to kiss his warm cheeks and whispered, “I love you, baby.”
The death talk had subsided, when lo and behold, a trail of blood brought it back to our front door.
“What died outside, Momma?” he asked me at bedtime. “Was it a lizard?”
“I don’t know. Let’s just sing a song. It’s time for bed,” I told him.
But he is my son. His mind is hard to shut off when it is filled with worry or anticipation. I sang one of his favorite songs, “Oh My Darling Clementine,” glad for a moment he doesn’t know it is about someone drowning.
“I hope Pete the Cat never gets dead,” he said as I tuck him under his dinosaur sheets and duvet.
“You will keep him safe, sweetheart.”
After I turned on his nightlight and lullaby CD, I went downstairs to my husband.
“Should we look around before it gets too dark?” I asked him. “I’d hate for him to find something when we go out for a walk tomorrow.”
My husband searched around under the bushes with a pair of bright yellow gardening gloves. I stood at the curb, not close enough to see if he found anything. I didn’t want to see whatever he might discover. It’s part of our division of labor--I talk about dead things with our son and he cleans them up.
“Do you think it could have been something bigger, maybe a cat or a dog?”
“If I hit a dog, I would have known,” he said.
“Well, maybe it was someone trying to move the planter to see if there was a key,” I said, a fear I’d been holding in all day. “The person could have smashed their hand on the heavy pot and started bleeding.”
“You think someone would try to break in in the middle of the day, with our cars in the driveway? I’m sure it was a squirrel.”
I still thought it looked like a lot of blood, but I have no idea the volume of blood that might be in a squirrel.
“Maybe it was one of those guys who keeps trying to sell us a security system,” I said. “Good scare tactic to drip blood across someone’s porch a few days after a cold call.”
All our neighbors had cameras pointed around their houses for a 360-degree view. But we relied on a chain lock and a wooden dowel lodged in the sliding glass door.
“You and your conspiracies,” my husband said, and shook his head at me.
Then I noticed a drop of blood on the light pavement of the curb.
“The trail starts up here,” I pointed down toward the brown drop of blood, oxygenated and dry. The drips led across the street to the black fence that divides our development from the park, meant to keep humans out but permeable to small creatures.
“Guess the body isn’t our problem, then,” my husband said as he straightened up and pulled the garden gloves off.
The next morning when I went out for a run and the drips of blood picked up again in the cul-de-sac near the temporary fire station before they disappeared again into the grass. As my husband predicted, turkey vultures circled overhead. People walked by with their dogs and children in strollers, oblivious to the hurt on the horizon.
Melissa Flores Anderson is a Latinx Californian and an award-winning journalist, who lives in her hometown with her young son and husband. Her creative work has been published or is forthcoming in Punk Noir Magazine, Maudlin House, The Write Launch, Voidspace Zine, Daily Drunk Magazine and Rejection Letters, among others. Her CNF “Six Gun Fights” received a Best of the Net nomination from Variant Lit. She served as a co-guest editor of Roi Fainéant Press’ first special issue, HEAT (6.26.22) and is now a reader/editor. Follow her on Twitter @melissacuisine or IG @theirishmonths. Read her work at melissafloresandersonwrites.com.